The end to Leeds United vs. Aston Villa is this week's most misguided display of sportsmanship
Clint Hughes - PA Images
Every year, three teams from the SkyBet Championship, the second division in English football, go up, while three come down. The top two finishers in the 24-team league receive automatic promotion, while the rest of the top six are cast into a vicious playoff dogfight. The survivor clinches top-flight status and nearly $300 million in additional revenue. The loser starts the 46-game slog all over again. It's perhaps the single most desperate competitive cauldron in professional sports, and with 18 minutes remaining on Sunday, Leeds United and Aston Villa—historically massive English clubs fallen on hard, dark times—sat at third and fifth in the table respectively. To say there couldn't have been more on the line as the clock ticked down at Elland Road isn't exactly true, but it certainly felt like it.
A victory for Leeds would keep them alive in the race for automatic promotion to the Premier League for the first time since 2004. Anything but would see them fall into the playoff bracket. A white-knuckle conclusion to the game was pretty much assured, but what came next exceeded even the wildest of expectations: Two goals, one fight, a red card, and perhaps the final nail in sportsmanship's long-ready coffin.
It all began when Villa's Jonathan Kodjia was beaten to a loose ball in midfield and immediately went down clutching his left knee. Kodjia may have actually been injured, but when you turn the ball over in midfield late in a vital game, you act like a scratch is a shrapnel wound because the murky laws of sportsmanship dictate that the other team kick the ball out of play instead of launching an odd-man counter attack. And for a moment it looked like that's exactly what Leeds intended to do, but just as Leeds forward Tyler Roberts was about to let the ball roll out to touch, he instead turned and played a ball down the line to Mateusz Klich, who cut inside and curled home the opening goal past a stunned Villa defense. All hell promptly broke loose.
There was, inevitably, a brawl over ethics (the irony lost on just about everyone), and when order was finally restored some five minutes later, referee Stuart Atwell added insult to Villa's injury by handing out a red card to Anwar El Ghazi. Then came the most bizarre twist of all: After the restart, Leeds United players, at the behest of manager Marco Bielsa—who coincidentally landed in hot water this winter for pulling a Belichick—simply stood by while Villa strolled down the pitch and scored the equalizer. Defender Pontus Jansson, adding the final garnish, ignored his coach's demands and attempted to stop Villa entirely on his own. He failed, albeit furiously, and the game—as well as Leeds' automatic promotion hopes—ended in a draw
The debacle is one of the most baffling, fascinating, messy sports highlights in recent memory. In the aftermath, Bielsa—whose native Argentina was forced to hold their biggest domestic rivalry game in Spain last year due to extreme fan violence, in case you're wondering where his footballing roots are planted—explained that his decision was less a matter of sentiment than decorum, saying "We gave the goal back. English football is known for its sportsmanship, so I don't need to comment on this kind of thing, which is common in English football."
English football, in turn, applauded Bielsa, especially Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, who gave Bielsa his "full respect" after his team clinched the second and final automatic promotion slot thanks to the unopposed Villa goal. The question, however, is not whether Bielsa did the "right" thing, but whether he should have. The question is whether or not his triumphant, heartwarming show of sportsmanship is actually, instead, the death of it.
The rules on injury stoppages are purposefully vague in English football. If it's a head injury, the referee is required to stop the game immediately. Everything else is up to their discretion. If the referee deems play can continue, the buck is then passed to the opposing team, who are asked to resolve their own split-second moral dilemma in the middle of a game where the absence of pesky everyday considerations like "ethics" and "morals" is a chief selling point. Was Kodjia actually injured? If not, isn't that the biggest violation of sportsmanship in this whole mess? Who knows, but the responsibility for making that decision falls firstly (and strangely) to the players.
The solution, at least as this calamitous sequence of feints and fists and petty sideline bickering seems to suggest, is to eliminate antiquated notions of sportsmanship altogether. If a player is down injured, the referee stops the game or doesn't. If he doesn't, everybody plays on, every team gets the same treatment, and we don't end up with Marco Bielsa and England legend John Terry barking in each other's beet-red faces over who scores the makeup goal and when. Without "sportsmanship," this game probably ends 0-0 and Leeds goes into the playoff pot. With it, it finishes 1-1 and Leeds goes into the playoff pot...after two unseemly goals, a five-minute fight, a red-card, and a bunch of excruciating hand-wringing like this.
So fill in the gray areas with black or fill them in with white. Get rid of the suggestions and put in laws. Do it in the MLB, where head hunting still reigns supreme, and the NBA, where you can't take a three without landing on your defender's strategically placed size 13. As society has proven time and time again, expecting humans to be decent is folly, but giving them no other choice usually does the trick. And if it doesn't, well, at the very least we should see some goals.